A fascinating and thought-provoking event took place in our city this weekend that focused on the single most important event in our national history - the War Between the States from 1861 to 1865. The symposium, hosted by the General Stephen D. Lee Institute, was titled, "The South Experiences the First Modern Total War."
A successful soldier, farmer and educator, Lee retired as president of Mississippi A&M University (now Mississippi State) in 1899. Afterward, he became president of the United Confederate Veterans, and in 1906, as many veterans were passing, he made a spirited speech at their annual convention, which included many sons of Confederate veterans. To those taking the torch from their fathers, he stated, "Remember, it is your duty to see that the true history of the South is presented to future generations." Obviously, the general was as concerned then about the misrepresentation of the Southern cause as many of us are today.
The symposium speakers were all outstanding scholars and writers in their fields, having doctorates in philosophy, political science and history. This was not a gathering of ideologues with inane shouts of, "The South shall rise again!" Such juvenile rhetoric fell on deaf ears long ago.
I'm sure my open-minded and politically self-righteous friends on the left are already screaming, "No, the war was all about slavery and the Southerners who defended that deplorable institution should have been killed and their culture destroyed!" However, anyone who grasps even a basic background of the War Between the States understands it was far more about Constitutional issues than it was about slavery.
Less than 11 percent of Southern men who fought came from families who owned slaves, yet they fought tenaciously. Why? They feared a tyrannical federal government that was usurping states' rights and their individual liberties. They were mostly subsistence farmers who would never have sacrificed their lives for a minority of wealthy slave owners.
In today's highly charged, culturally divisive environment, anyone who opposes the sanctimonious intelligentsia is derisively labeled a racist, bigot, homophobe, chauvinist or Bible-thumping religious fanatic, despite the power and truth of their argument. It is time to move beyond the name calling to serious discussions about our history and our future.
Our government is locked in divisiveness: red states vs blue states; liberalism vs conservatism; Christianity vs paganism; and socialism vs. private enterprise. The divisions grow while we as private citizens have less and less control of our government, no matter if we are Republican or Democrat. Both sides of the political class are increasingly beholden to big-government programs, special-interest groups, fighting wars abroad of no consequence and getting re-elected. We, the people, have no voice -- the deepest fear of our Founding Fathers and our Southern ancestors.
Simply dismissing our forefathers as an evil, racist and bigoted people who only fought to perpetuate slavery perpetuates a lie and does no justice to our democratic heritage. Symposiums such as the Stephen D. Lee Institute attempt to apply their values to American society today in a meaningful, positive way. The fact that such capable people are courageously speaking the truth instead of cow-towing to political correctness certainly gave me more hope for my children and grandchildren than anything I've heard from Washington recently. The alternative, as Santiago said, is, "Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it."
Roger Smith of Soddy-Daisy is a frequent contributor to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.